Beast on the Moon review – portrait of a marriage and a massacre

Drama can tackle big subjects obliquely. That is certainly the case with Richard Kalinoski’s play – first seen in America in 1995 and since produced in more than 20 countries – which has only four characters but is haunted by the memory of Turkey’s systematic elimination of 1.5 million Armenians. I found its portrait of an immigrant marriage deeply touching, while wishing it told us more about the Armenian genocide of the 1910s and early 1920s.

Kalinoski sets the action in 1920s Milwaukee, where Aram, a young Armenian photographer who has miraculously survived the mass killings, meets his 15-year-old bride, Seta, who is a similarly orphaned refugee. Aram behaves like a traditional patriarch but Seta is too spirited and inquisitive to be a submissive consort. The marriage is also shadowed by Seta’s inability to bear children. If the relationship is saved, it is through Seta’s temporary adoption of a 12-year-old street kid, Vincent, who is in flight from persecution at a Catholic orphanage.

You can’t fault the play, in Jelena Budimir’s production, as a story of a relationship. George Jovanovic as Aram has exactly the right withdrawn testiness and his eyes, as Seta observes, are “a mountain of sadness”. Zarima McDermott is highly impressive as Seta, mixing sparkiness and anxiety in just the right proportion. There is a fine moment when she counters Aram’s use of Proverbs to justify male dominance with biblical quotations asserting the exact opposite. Hayward B Morse also doubles effectively as a beneficent narrator and the boy who becomes a surrogate son.

Jovanovic and McDermott with Hayward B Morse as the narrator. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The play, however, raises nagging questions. It condemns the pursuit of Vincent by a pederastic priest while scarcely raising an eyebrow at Aram’s marriage to a 15-year-old girl. It also leaves to the end an explanation of how Aram survived the slaughter, and the reason why his cherished family photo has no faces. The play performs a public service in reminding us of the Armenian slaughter which, to this day, Turkey refuses to call a genocide. In focusing so fixedly on an intimate relationship, however, it relegates the horrors of history to a backdrop.

At the Finborough theatre, London, until 23 February.

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